Web Guide: USGenWeb

Web Guide: USGenWeb

Make the most out of this all-volunteer, all-free genealogy site covering the entire United States.

In a genealogy landscape dominated by pay-as-you-go websites, the USGenWeb Project remains one of the few megasites where every scrap of genealogy data is free. That’s because the project is the coordinated effort of volunteers dedicated to free genealogy access for everyone.
Established in 1996, USGenWeb is a conglomeration of thousands of websites maintained by volunteers. The home page links to sites dedicated to each state, which in turn link to sites for every county in each state. USGenWeb also sponsors special projects that cross state and county boundaries.
The history of USGenWeb is interwoven with the history of the grassroots genealogy site RootsWeb <rootsweb.ancestry.com>. In the early years, RootsWeb hosted the USGenWeb sites; beginning in 2000, however, the project’s main pages and almost all the county pages moved to other hosts. Because of the massive data transfer, you may run into broken links as you surf. If you do, contact the state or county coordinator. Even so, you’ll still see some “straggler” pages sitting on a RootsWeb site.  
Because this is an all-volunteer organization, the look, feel and content of each county site varies, depending on the efforts of the county coordinator. Some sites are robust, brimming with databases, biographies, county histories, maps and transcriptions of church, census and cemetery records. Others are bare-bones, providing little more than surname queries and links to the county courthouse, library and other repositories.
Thanks to a structure that mimics the way genealogists research national, state and county-level records, USGenWeb has become the place for place-based genealogy research. If your relatives were in one place for any length of time, it’s probable you’ll find some trace of them on USGenWeb. 

Start navigating

USGenWeb’s home page is designed for easy navigation to the state-level pages, as well as how-to information and links to special projects. The site has thousands of pages, each with its own content. Here’s an overview of what’s available:

• States: On the left side of the home page, you’ll see an alphabetical list of the 50 states, plus the District of Columbia and Oklahoma/Indian Territory. Each link takes you to that state’s home page, which in turn links to pages for  each county in the state. 

• Projects: The link to USGenWeb’s records transcription projects is located both on the top menu and the right side of the home page. One of the projects, for example, focuses on transcribing tombstones across the country. For researchers who live hundreds of miles from a cemetery, being able to track down a burial online is a true timesaver. Other projects transcribe obituary, census, pension and marriage records. Explore this link for a list of current projects, along with a link to each. 

Interested in census records? Follow links to two projects that (according to the Projects page) “call themselves USGenWeb Census Projects, but neither one is actually associated with The USGenWeb Project.”

• Researchers: Also located atop the home page is a Researchers link. Click it and you’ll land on a page with a hodgepodge of helpful information on topics such as land records, naming conventions, immigration, the census and more. (Note that on some pages this link is called Research Home.) 

• Archives: The USGenWeb Archives houses thousands of document transcriptions volunteers have uploaded to a state or county site. Visit <usgwarchives.net/search/searcharchives.html> to search the archives nationally or by state (you can select a county to search) for data from obituaries, biographical sketches, wills, cemeteries, and county histories. You generally won’t see digitized records—the transcriptions are on plain-text web pages—so you’ll want to use the transcribed information to track down the original record.

 Site Navigation: This easy-to-miss pull-down menu at the top of the USGenWeb home page has links to several helpful pages that you’d probably never find otherwise, including brochures you can print for free distribution to your genealogy society, a PowerPoint presentation about USGenWeb, a document preservation guide and tips for writing queries. This menu also has quick links to the pages described under the Projects link.
I recommend searching both the special projects and the Project Archives, as census records (for example) might be uploaded to the Census Project or to the site for the county the records cover. 
If your ancestor search leads you outside the United States, surf the WorldGenWeb <www.worldgenweb.org>. It’s structured similarly to the USGenWeb site except for its country-specific divisions (states, counties, regions) rather than divisions by state and county.

Select your state

Why is place-based research so important? Because the types of records your ancestors created—by paying taxes, buying property, attending schools and churches, being mentioned in newspapers and more—are endemic to a specific place. 
For starters, pick your state. Every state page is unique, but typically includes links to a county map (or list of county names), the USGenWeb Project Archives, and a search engine you can use to limit your archives search to the state’s records. But even if the site doesn’t have transcriptions of your ancestors’ records, it’ll probably tell you where to look. It’ll also likely feature historical information about the state, old photos or postcards, links for genealogical and historical societies, and the name and e-mail address of the state coordinator.
State pages can differ quite a bit from one another. The Wisconsin state page <www.wigenweb.org> contains a brief history of the state, along with helpful research tips such as how to get started in Wisconsin genealogy, map images and links to resources on other sites. The Kentucky state page <www.kygenweb.net>, by comparison, has link after link to Kentucky-based genealogy data, statewide records projects, biographies, court cases, soldiers, even a list of the 1792 Kentucky presidential electors.
See the Search Secrets section for a step-by-step example of how to search the USGenWeb archive for the state. Why would you search records for the entire state instead of drilling down to the county level? Your family could’ve lived in several counties, or generated records that were kept at the state level. Maybe family stories place your ancestor in Maryland, but you don’t know where. (If you follow a link from the state site to the USGenWeb Archives search engine, keep in mind this searches not just the state site, but all transcriptions uploaded to the USGenWeb Archives.) 
If a search link on a state site takes you to nonexistent pages (for example, the Arizona Archives link at <www.usgwarchives.net/az/azfiles.htm>), there is a workaround: Return to the USGenWeb home page and click on the Project Archives link, then on National Search Engine and, finally, on the state you want to search. All you Arizona researchers now can start searching.

Concentrate on counties

Once you’re on a state site, look for a pull-down menu of counties, or a link to a state map or an alphabetical list of counties. Then select your county of interest. Almost all county sites include county formation dates and the names of “parent” counties from which each was formed. Some sites give the name and e-mail address of the county coordinator, as well as any county available for adoption—meaning it needs a volunteer coordinator. 
You’ll probably also find links to how-to research information and records on other websites, links to local repositories and genealogy organizations, historical background, photos, surname queries from researchers looking for local families, and names of volunteers who’ll do lookups.
Most county sites have a search engine for county records in the USGenWeb Project Archives (see an example of a search in Search Secrets). Beyond that, the content is unique. For example, Shelby County, Ind. <www.shelbycountyindiana.org>, researchers can spend hours delving into transcribed courthouse records, obituaries, biographies, cemetery records, newspaper articles, maps, images, and even some Bible records. While family tree climbers won’t find the same depth of records on the Adams County, ND, pages <rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ndadams>, they can explore census and Bureau of Land Management records, as well as a county history. 
In general, states that were the original 13 Colonies tend to have a greater depth of well-documented histories and records on their county pages than newer states. But regardless of how much or how little a county page contains, you can find precious clues for your research using these features: 

• Search engine: For counties with hundreds or even dozens of pages, it’s quicker to use the county search engine than to go through each set of documents individually. The search engine will query all the record transcriptions for the county, such as newspaper articles and Bible, census, school and military records. 

• Lookups: County sites may list volunteers who own county histories or published indexes of local records, or who live near repositories or cemeteries, and are willing to do lookups for you. Look for instructions on how to request a lookup. 

 Queries: Check pages with queries submitted by researchers of local families, along with contact information. Note that contact information is often out-of-date, but queries are still worth perusing and posting.

If exploring USGenWeb has inspired you to add your time and talents to a favorite county, click the Volunteers link on the home page and see what a difference your contribution can make.
USGenWeb Project general information
Web address: <www.usgenweb.org>
Overview:  The USGenWeb Project is a free network of independent, volunteer-run sites created to provide genealogical information for every US county and state.
Contact: USGenWeb Project, 865 Claggett Lane, Eastview, KY 42732
(for state and county sites, look for a link to contact a site coordinator)
Monthly visitors: 150,000

Content: Pages exist for all US counties. Content varies by county and can include vital statistics, histories, biographies, maps, message boards, queries, links to helpful resources, transcribed records and surname researchers.
In time
1996 | USGenWeb is established on RootsWeb servers
1997 | USGenWeb Archives Census Project launches
1999 | United States Digital Map Project kicks off
2000 | MyFamily.com (now Ancestry.com) acquires RootsWeb; state coordinators begin moving state sites off RootsWeb
2001 | USGenWeb Archives Marriages Project begins
2005 | USGenWeb Archives Immigrations Project launches
2008 | USGenWeb officially moves the project to a new host

From the September 2010 Family Tree Magazine

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